The SNP and Tories have swapped places in Scotland: The former is the party of government. The latter the party of protest

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, May 31st 2017

It is a topsy-turvy time in Scottish politics.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon now regularly challenges Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson for going on about nothing else but independence.

Tories in Scotland have become a party of protest. Today Tory protestors stood outside the SNP manifesto launch earlier in Perth with anti-independence placards. The SNP have become a party of government. The two have literally swapped roles.

The SNP have been in office for ten years. The Tories in London for seven years. The SNP say the Tories don’t want to talk about their record. Similarly, the Tories and Labour say the same of the SNP.

The SNP manifesto and campaign has to navigate these circumstances. Incumbency. A record of electoral dominance and success. They have some key achievements in office also a record which can be criticised and attacked. Central in this is the state of education and health, public spending cuts and pay constraints.

The party’s manifesto, ‘Stronger for Scotland’ is fronted by a range of young children and one baby and relegates Nicola Sturgeon to page two. It is as you would expect a progressive document, firmly on the centre-left, calling for higher taxes on those earning over £150,000, but not the £80,000 of the Labour manifesto.

It addresses as all SNP manifestos for UK elections do numerous policy areas the party has no power or influence over – except in the unlikely circumstances of a Westminster hung Parliament. The spectre of that and SNP influence played well for the Tories in 2015, but the so-called ‘coalition of chaos’ of Labour, SNP and Lib Dems seems to have less traction now, despite the polls narrowing.

Sturgeon’s speech today was filled with attack lines on the Tories – reflecting the re-emergence of the Tories in Scotland after years in the cold. It also plays well attacking Theresa May and other Tories in appealing to Labour voters. Thus, her speech was littered with anti-austerity comments, references to the Tories controversial ‘rape clause’, and was light on Brexit, independence and any second referendum and the timing of it.

Scotland is in a different place to the rest of the UK. 40% of Scots think independence is the main issue in this election, compared to 21% for Brexit and 15% health. This works for the SNP and Tories, with No voters in the 2014 independence referendum splitting 53% Conservative and 22% Labour according to a Sky News poll.

Yet while the SNP are now perceived in more divisive ways and this has hit Nicola Sturgeon’s ratings, it has also affected the high profile Tory leader Ruth Davidson who has become as marmite as Sturgeon. This is little commented on in Scotland and the UK but is a bit of an achievement when one is in office and the other has only been in the Scottish Parliament for six years – the entire time in opposition.

Sturgeon’s popularity ratings show her with 48% satisfaction and 50% dissatisfaction now. Davidson’s are 45% satisfaction, 48% dissatisfaction. These figures represent a significant shift since the election was called and YouGov found Sturgeon on 47/45 and Davidson 47/29 last month. Scotland is filled with talk of ‘Peak Nat’, but we may be about to hit on June 8th, irrespective of how high the Tory vote and them winning several seats from the SNP, ‘Peak Tartan Tory’. We have already on these figures hit ‘Peak Ruth’.

In this febrile situation Jeremy Corbyn intervened yet again with his second wobble on independence saying, if in government, he would ‘open discussions’ with the Scottish Government over an independence referendum.

This is after Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who on two previous occasions tied herself in knots on independence, found her current anti-independence referendum stance – which she was dragged to by her party and the Tory threat.

Scottish politics are in dramatic transition. The SNP are the party of government. The Tories are happy insurgents having found a new popular theme. Labour can only look on from the outside and haven’t adjusted to their diminished status.

Whatever happens in this election in Scotland the SNP aren’t going away and will remain the country’s dominant political force for the foreseeable future. But they need new political tunes, policies and political intelligence. They need to understand non-SNP Scotland better and recognise that for all their parliamentary dominance, they remain the largest of Scotland’s political minorities. This will be even more obvious and acute after June 8th.

The SNP cannot continue, as many others have done before them, banging on about the same old wicked Tories, invoking Margaret Thatcher, the 1980s and the poll tax. Slowly this has to become part of the backdrop of Scottish politics, not the current conversation.

The days of the imperial SNP are over. That is no bad thing. Scottish politics is about to get more competitive, interesting and unpredictable. That will require a different SNP, and at some point, a more grounded, grown up politics from its main opponents, the Tories and Labour.